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Sowing the Seeds for Today's Electronic Music: An Interview with Jon Appleton

Sowing the Seeds for Today's Electronic Music: An Interview with Jon Appleton

Now that the computer is a musical instrument unto itself (Music is created that couldn't be done without it) it makes sense hear the perspective one of the early pioneers in the field of Electronic Music. Jon Appleton has has made a living as a composer, music educator and for a brief time entrepreneur.

As an entrepreneur he was part of the three man team that started development the Synclavier, one of the first digital synthesizers to hit the market and the very first to use the FM architecture that had been developed by John Chowning at Stanford's Center for New Music and Acoustics (CCRMA).

Jon passed away on January 30th, 2022, and he is missed by his family and friends, his many students throughout the world, composers, entrepreneurs, and anyone who appreciates electronic music.

Let's start with your beginnings as a composer and music educator. How did that lead to your contribution to the Synclavier?

Jon Appleton at Dartmouth

Yea, well I started composing instrumental music at an early age, and when I was 25 I started doing electronic music. We were, splicing tape and doing montage with several tape recorders and processing the audio through filters and ring modulators and various outboard gear, because in those days of course, this is quite pre-digital.

And then when I went to teach at Dartmouth, the President of the college, a man named John Kemeny asked me to build what, in those days, was called an electronic music studio, which really consisted of multiple tape recorders, mixers, and out-board gear, all analog. Kemeny was a scientist. He had been an assistant of Einstein and he wrote the BASIC computer language. He had the vision that eventually everybody would use computers, and at that time that was a pretty unusual thing to say. He was encouraging people in all disciplines to work with computers. There had already been significant work done at the Bell Laboratories, and I was a friend of Max Mathews, who was at Bell at the time.

Sydney Alonso, Jon Appleton, and Cameron Jones

The idea actually started because I was working with a Moog synthesizer and I thought, "It is such a pain to patch up one sound and then if you want a different sound, you have to patch up the whole thing." So I went over to the engineering school and talked to an engineer by the name of Sydney Alonso—he was just an assistant in the digital lab at the engineering school—and he said, "I've been interested in building my own digital oscillator bank," and he did it. We had a student in common, Cameron Jones, who was a programmer and we made this system called the Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer. There's a recording of it on Folkways. Later they decided they wanted to start their own company to make a computer called the Able.

So New England Digital was actually started to make a computer?

The Synclavier with the Able Computer

That's right, to make a little computer. I think they did some work for the Defense Department. But we all wanted to make a musical instrument, because that's what we had started thinking about. Ironically the Able computer was the thing that kept Synclavier together for all those years because it had a proprietary computer and software so it couldn't be copied.

So we worked together to design the instrument—what it would look like, how it would be played, and the kind of buttons that would be on the interface. I remember when we showed it at the first AES show the thing that people couldn't believe was that you played on the keyboard and you could hear it play it back instantly. That just didn't exist in those days.

Was this about the same time that the Fairlight CMI appeared?

I think it was before Fairlight came out. I was talking about this with Don Buchla. At the time there were a lot of digital synthesizers sort of in the works. Some were phony. I don't remember all the companies, but there was the ADS 100 from Con Brio... You know, the real problem with a lot of these early digital synthesizers is that they were done by inventors who were not musicians. I think the strength of what we did at NED in the early days was that I was a musician, one guy was a programmer and one guy was a hardware guy. You need collaboration by those diverse skills. Being a musician, I was the face of the instrument... how one would use it.

Why did you leave the company when you did?

Okay, so there are two reasons why I left. One was that the kind of music I was making was avant-garde music, and for the instrument to be a success they needed the help of musicians who were in the rock or pop field. That was clear. And then, the other reason I left was that I was appointed director of the Elektronmusikstudion EMS in Stockholm Sweden. So I went and I left my job at Dartmouth and I left New England Digital.

What do you think ultimately kept NED from adjusting to the changing market?

Two things—number one, they wanted to come out with an inexpensive Synclavier, and the idea was to do it on a Mac, the early Macintosh. But, because of the proprietary nature of their CPU and their software the project would have been a huge undertaking and they were reluctant to do it. And there was resistance within the company to doing a less expensive instrument. And then Yamaha came out with the DX7, for two thousand bucks, and the customers for New England Digital were all these high-end film people or Michael Jackson or Sting, and they wanted more and more memory and data and processing and sampling and MIDI.

And so, the company went in the direction of the high end, and eventually, it cost too much. There wasn't a big enough customer base at the high end. But I think also the management was mesmerized by the contact with big names in the music world. Some thought that to spend a couple of days with Leonard Bernstein was the high point of their lives.

I remember going to a New England Digital party, in New York when Sting performed. I still have the ticket, which was like a keychain.

Oh yea, they brought a lot of the employees down on buses.

Yea, I guess they were making a lot of money then.

They were.

And then Digidesign came along...

That's right. And that was the other part of their business that they gave up. The only reason Synclavier is still around, and it is, are the few people like Sean Callery who does music for Homeland and some of these TV shows. The only reason it's around is it's like any old technology is around, because they learn to use the system and they are resistant to learn something else. Today you can make any sound you want. But, you learn with a certain technology and you don't want to give it up.

We asked John McLaughlin what would he like to see about a year ago, and he said, "Well, I'd like the Synclavier to come back."

That's right. They built the guitar interface for him. I think the person who wrote the best music for the Synclavier was Frank Zappa. I mean, at the end of his life that's all he was working on. And you know that album, Jazz From Hell, is amazing. He was a great musician and he knew a lot of technology. And if he had lived, it would be very interesting to see where his music would have gone.

Tell me about working with Don Cherry on Human Music with?

This was all improvisation. He had two microphones, one for his voice and one for the acoustic instruments he played. The output from both of those went into a Moog synthesizer and turned into control voltages, and then those sounds were modified by certain modules. And we did the album, I think, ten days—each day a new session recorded live on four channel Scully tape recorder. After that ten-day period, that was over. Then we sat down with the master recording and we chose the four best ones.

We took those, and put them on two-track tape, bounced them down, and then edited those—because some of them were quite long. We would just say, "Well cut that part out. Put this part in." Maybe we filtered a little or put a little extra reverb in, but it was pretty raw. It was the sound of the Moog, the sound of Don's instrument and Don's voice, and then all of that processed and I was controlling the Moog, the keyboard, and the dials on the different modules, all in real time. It was improvisation.

After the recording and editing was complete we took it down to the head of this recording company, Bob Thiele, at Flying Dutchman. You have to understand the time of that—it was like 1970—and record companies were hungry for...see, they didn't know where the culture was going. He thought, "Wow, we should put this out." I don't think he even listened to it. He was so anxious to put it out, and it was so weird for the time.

How would you compare that to the Russian Music, another recording you did...?

So, from the time I was six years old until I was about 25 years old I wrote instrumental and choral music—sometimes it was more modern. I got involved in electronic music early on and I liked it because the composers of my generation at that time were writing 12-tone music serial music, I hated it. I still hate it. I just wasn't interested in that kind of instrumental music. It was difficult to listen to and impossible to play, and the audience doesn't know what the hell is going on. But I found refuge in electronic music, and mine was different from anybody else's because it was programmatic. The Don Cherry is not typical of what I did. If you listen to something like the TheWorld Music Theater of Jon Appleton on Smithsonian/Folkways that is more what I became known for... So then I did electronic music, and that's how I'm known in the field is because of my electronic music.

I was pleasantly surprised...

Yea. And then 20 years ago, maybe 18 years ago, I started to teach at the Moscow Conservatory, but I was there to teach at what's called the Theremin Center and they wanted me to teach electronic music and the history of it. So I would go over there every year, and while I was there, I met so many extraordinary Russian classical musicians and they would ask me to write music for them. So I sort of went back to the most romantic tradition and just started writing for them. Everybody in the electronic music world thought that I'd lost it...

Did you use any particular computer programs?

No, not until later, of course. Now I use Sibelius and I use it everyday. But, I would say that I still write in the same way. I write with a pencil on manuscript paper with five lines. I write the idea down. I turn to the computer. I'll listen to it, if it's for more than a piano and stuff. And then I'll edit it and then sometimes I'll go back and forth.

Also, I did a lot of work on strange instruments like Max Mathews Radio Baton. I wrote three pieces for that - one that he played, if you see that video of him, Pacific Rimbombo.

Then I wrote a piece for two radio batons that we played. And then I wrote a piece for violin and radio baton. Then I wrote a piece for Theremin and piano, and then for Theremin and string quartet and that's still played.

Given your experience how would you contrast musicians and composers in various parts of the world that you have taught?

Experimentation in music in Russia historically was censored by the Soviet government and never allowed in public, Today it's the province of young rebels. In America, we don't make such a distinction...I mean, you have composers of all ages who work in very many different styles. Young people that write pop music, that write film music, that write sweet tunes, that write difficult music. I don't know. I think that, in America, our musical culture is as diverse as our physical culture and our human culture. In Russia, no, it's very conservative. Except for this underground, and there is that, but of course not many people know about it.

Could you give me an example of an underground composer or musician?

Sure. Alexander Lakein, Andre Smirnov, Yuri Spitsyn, Evgeny Kuzin, Tatiana Komarova, et al. Look them up on the Internet and you'll see what they do.

What about the Far East and Europe?

Japan is also extremely conservative. There are a few people who have been in that underground—Aki Onda, who works with cassette tape recorders in some weird way. Rioji Ikeda, who does extremely minimalist, and I think fascinating work. But by and large that doesn't touch Japanese culture.

In Europe, because music is still experimental music, if you call it that, it's still a bit supported by the state. But commercialism has swamped all styles of music everywhere. There's less and less original kind of music being produced in any genre today, because of the need for people to earn a living. I think things like iTunes and Spotify, not to mention worldwide piracy, are killing inventiveness in music because people can't make a living. They don't get record sales because there are no record sales. So I think, except at the very top like Taylor Swift, or on the fringes with people that don't care if they are making any money, our musical culture is being leveled out by commercial interest.

What's the most important thing that you've learned from your students over the years?

To let them talk, to listen to them. Not to tell them how the world is, but to learn what the world is from them. I know that sounds strange.

That makes a lot of sense. A good teacher lets a student find his own path.

Especially when teaching composition students today, they're all different. They need someone who encourages them, who listens to them, who sometimes points out "Oh hey did you look at that?" or "Have you ever heard this?" But otherwise, you can't make a composer. You just have to help them make their own music better.

And what's the most important thing that you've tried to teach?

To try things they've never tried before. They come in with a fixed idea, whether it be computer music, electronic music, piano music, rock, they get these idols and they listen to those pieces—and every composer starts out by imitating their idols—but you have to encourage them to take chances and break away from that, otherwise it's a dead end.

Jon Appleton is an innovator and creative force.




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